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Homer's Odyssey

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Joel Richards, Javen Tanner, David D'Agostini (Odysseus), Nicholas Alexiy Moran.
Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Every once in a while, an interpretation of a classic makes us want to thumb through the original to not only compare and contrast, but to see if and how - with incredulousness - the first telling of the narrative could possibly be better. Such is the case with poet Simon Armitage's contemporary adaptation of Homer's Odyssey. This version of Odysseus' (David D'Agostini) epic voyage from the end of the Trojan War to his homeland of Ithaca not only incorporates the grandeur and fantasy of the Greek myths, but is fun and only hints at the sensuality and darkness so that kids can experience it too.

Homer's Odyssey has enough intrigue, impossible circumstances, and long-suffering characters to appeal to adults. Odysseus, a war hero with cunning intelligence, leaves his infant son Telemachus and devoted wife Penelope (Elizabeth Ruelas) to fight a war that lasts for ten years. He spends the next ten as the ping-pong ball between gods who want what's best for him - goddess of war, Athena (Jane Pejtersen) and the mightiest god of all, her father, Zeus (John Michalski) - and gods who want what's best for themselves - the often mentioned but never present god of the seas, Poseidon, and Circe, a minor goddess of magic. But it also has enchanted lands - Aeaea, the island where Circe turns men into pigs - giant, one-eyed monsters like Cyclops, and the sacred cattle of Helios, god of the sun to delight children. In fact, all of the adventures from the fall of Troy to Odysseus' reunion with his family are all wonderful material to stir up the imagination of the kiddies. Luckily, a lot of the wonder is translated onstage.

The power and royalty of the gods is established from the opening sequences of this three-hour drama. Athena soars through the sky as she is carried in vertically by the strong arms of slaves who then give her their backs to descend as stairs. Despite Pejtersen's tentative steps on them, she proceeds to be the hearty princess of Mount Olympus, even if she doesn't present herself with the same commanding mettle as Michalski. Candida K. Nichols' costumes also go a long way towards conveying the splendor of some of the characters. Using creativity and well-placed accessories, she finds ways to make yards of cloth look regal.

The visuals continue to entertain with Tijana Bjelajac's scenic design. Two low tables that resemble traditional Japanese furniture change from a bed to a platform by configuration. A bamboo pole is Zeus' mighty staff in one scene, joins others as a spear in J. Allen Suddeth's exciting, but short-lived fight choreography, and then returns to its natural form as a wooden plank in Odysseus' storm-wracked boat. Although the image of Cyclops works better when he is hidden behind a sheet, Marta Mozelle MacRostie's puppet is appropriate because it looks like a child's rendering of the character. The same goes for Helios' lumbering, golden-eyed cow. A child's perspective is exactly what you need to appreciate them.

If you're having trouble getting excited about the puppets, Rachael McOwen has enough starry-eyed enthusiasm as Nausicaa for you to borrow. As the young princess who discovers a shipwrecked Odysseus, McOwen punctuates every word with a bubbly tone that isn't doltish in the least. She is equally impressive when she sings as a Siren and Phemios, introducing a nice balance of music versus narrative to the play.

For the most part, there's a nice balance to the performances as well. Under J. Scott Reynolds' sharp direction, Handcart Ensemble's cast of eleven weave in and out of 30 characters. Although the transition from one to the next is not always clear-voices don't always modulate and appearances don't change drastically to distinguish one from the other - the gods are godly, the servants exude servitude, the sailors sail, and Penelope's suitors are as unsuitable as they come. Much like Helios' cattle, Reynolds also grabs the constant activity and imagery by the horns for a smooth and well-executed production. Despite several flubbed lines of dialogue, D'Agostini manages to wear the part of a hero as well as he wears his tunic. After all, D'Agostini needs to sell himself as an exceptional man if we're to believe that Penelope pines over him for twenty years, and that for much of those years, he's detained as a bedmate by a nymph and a goddess.

With all its plot twists, turns and flashbacks, Homer's Odyssey does have the potential to be confusing. However, Armitage's version, infused with his own poetry, is coherent while staying true to the original concept. Because, as Zeus says, "no hero ever goes quietly into old age", myths will continue to be told and retold. Fortunately for its patrons, Armitage's reworking of this one is glorious in this age.

Homer's Odyssey
Through September 19
45 Bleecker, 45 Bleecker Street at Lafayette
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Brown Paper Tickets

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